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Raiding Big Meat; Arresting the Wrong People

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

You’d think the 290 Guatemalans, 93 Mexicans, 2 Israelis and 4 Ukrainians arrested and detained in Postville, Iowa on May 12 were working at a call center.

Instead of knockers, stickers, bleeders, tail rippers, flankers, gutters, sawers, and plate boners at the nation’s largest supplier of kosher beef, Agriprocessors, you’d think they were wearing demure headsets and taking overnight 800-number orders in particle board cubicles.

Reports describe the shock and awe raid–the choppers and hundreds of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents–and the 306 workers charged with possession of a counterfeit identification document, aggravated identity theft and misuse of a Social Security number.

They mention the harsh 5-month prison sentences detainees face, lack of due process and families torn apart–especially "unfair" says Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic advocacy in the Des Moines Register, because plant officials haven’t been charged.

Some reports even list Agriprocessors’ rich and varied history of environmental, humane, food safety and worker safety abuses which includes five employee amputations according to OSHA records.

But nowhere do reports mention the reason behind the raid: the only "meat" work Americans are willing to do is tending the barbecue.

This is not the first time Agriprocessors has been in the news.

Four years ago undercover investigators for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal (PETA) videotaped workers ripping tracheas out of conscious cattle and leaving them to thrash in their own blood on the floor at the same plant.

The investigation moved the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement to condemn Agriprocessors and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to launch its own investigation which found "acts of inhumane slaughter."

Afterwards investigators Hannah and Philip Schein went public with their identity and the fact that they themselves keep kosher–though 70 percent of Agriprocessors meat is not kosher and sold as Iowa Best Beef Brand in Albertson’s Kroger, Shop Rite, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Ralph’s, Pathmark and H.E. Butt, probably right next to the dairy case.

Nor is this the first ICE raid at a meat plant in Iowa.

Agents raided a Swift & Co. plant in Marshalltown, Iowa in December 2006 along with Swift plants in five other states, arresting over 1,200 workers.

Agriprocessors’ choice of Postville as headquarters in 1987 which doubled the population of 1,400 reflects the national trend to "move slaughterhouses closer to the corn-fed, rich Midwestern beef," says Stephen G. Bloom, author of Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, and a journalism teacher at the University of Iowa, in a Nieman Watchdog interview this month. "Fewer unions, cheaper land, less transportation costs, less government oversight," are some of the advantages he says.

But even as the system of cheap meat fails and the balance of Postville’s work force heads toward Club Fed for doing the work Americans won’t, no one questions that the nation can’t afford its own meat habit if it enforces its own laws.

So while Iowa Governor Chet Culver says, "I believe it is important that we crack down on illegal immigration. Illegal means illegal" and Postville bloggers submit that illegals "raise our health care costs" and "should go home and come back legally," the real message comes from Marshalltown Mayor Gene Beach.

A year and a half after the raid, he can’t say for sure if Swift–which is back to full production–has hired more undocumented workers reports KCRG-TV. But in the surrounding community Mayor Beach says, "I’m certain there are undocumented workers."

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org